Photo by Allison Stein Wellner
This past summer, I caught a cold. It's rare for me to have a full-bore coughing, sneezing, sore throat extravaganza in the warmer months, so to distract myself from thoughts of swine flu and obsessive temperature-taking, I paged through Food: The History of Taste, a lavishly illustrated reference book edited by Paul Freedman. A 16th century fresco of Benedictine monks gathered for dinner caught my eye, and the caption explained that monasteries and convents were famed for medicinal preparations including "cordials and pharmaceutical sweets called electuaries".
Electuaries? I'd never heard that word before, and as I padded off to the kitchen to drop another Airborne tablet into a glass of cold water, I considered whether an electuary could provide me some relief from my bricked-in-nose, burning throat, aching head hell. (I try to avoid over-the-counter cold medicines, as they make me muddle-headed and that makes me feel sicker.) After all, I already enthusiastically appreciated other monastic culinary creations--like, for example Trappist beer.
At first, I thought I might be able to buy an electuary somewhere, maybe at a health food store, but the term has really fallen out of use. I didn't find many recipes either, but my preliminary Web research suggested that these electuaries would involve spices, sugar, and perhaps alcohol, which seemed like they'd at least be quite tasty. I was just going to have to figure out how to make them myself.
In the Middle Ages, the line between food and medicine was blurry--apothecaries and confectionaries were roughly synonymous.
I decided to give Paul Freedman a call. In addition to editing Food, he wrote Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, and he's a professor of history at Yale University. He explained to me that electuaries were a sugary, spicy, gummy-like affair, and were actually the first candies. In the Middle Ages, the line between food and medicine was blurry--apothecaries and confectionaries were roughly synonymous, and a properly lavish banquet would end with a course of electuaries.
"Today, this is hard to imagine--ending a meal by offering your guests a plate of pharmaceuticals," Freedman said, "at least in law-abiding households." But in those days, an expensive medicinal concoction of sugar and spices would have been the sin qua non of luxurious dining--not at all as odd as serving a platter of Lipitor would be today. I had a dinner party coming up. I like luxury. I resolved to create an electuary course to finish the meal--and vanquish any cold virus that my guests might be harboring.
Since "sin qua non" is close to my entire Latin vocabulary, monastic recipes were going to be beyond me, but Freedman was kind enough to point me to an apothecary manual that was translated into English: The Tabula Antidotarri of Armengaud Blaise.
This isn't exactly a recipe book--its intended readers would have known the basics of how to create electuaries, pills, suppositories, and so on. I didn't, of course, but since Freedman had described electuaries as similar to Turkish Delight, I decided to use a basic recipe for that candy, to which I'd add whatever medicinal spices and herbs the Tabula advised.
I stocked my makeshift apothecary/confectionary at Aphrodisia, a creaky-floored spice shop in New York's West Village, and Kalustyan's, the Indian spice shop in Murray Hill. My Tabula-informed shopping list included a couple of the well-known folk remedies for cold and flu: horehound (good for "cutting thick phlegmy humours on the palate and the throat"), licorice (for cough), roses (for the chest) as well as a few others that I'd not heard of in a medical context: white poppy (for headache, and "hot humours to the throat and chest") and hyssop, an herb that's supposed to be good for chest ailment, and which tastes to me like a slightly bitter combination of mint, lavender, and chamomile.
Photo by Allison Stein Wellner
To make a traditional Turkish Delight, you boil sugar, water and lemon juice to 240 degrees, and mix in a thickener of cornstarch and cream of tartar. Just before you pour the candy in the pan to set, you add rosewater.
I made six different electuaries, in mini-loafpans which yielded about ten candies each. (I used different food coloring for each pan so I could easily tell them apart.) For one, I stuck with the rosewater, but added a quarter teaspoon of powdered rosehips. For another, I made a "decoction" of horehound, which is a strong tea, and I substituted the tea for the rosewater. I did the same with the hyssop.
My final three were combinations: I used rosewater, a quarter teaspoon of licorice and a quarter teaspoon of white poppy seeds in one; horehound decoction and a quarter teaspoon of licorice powder in the second; and finally hyssop decoction and a few pinches of dried hyssop herb in the third.
The dinner party was the next day. I gave my electuaries a final dusting of powdered sugar, and arranged them on the plate. (I'd also made a pan of traditional Turkish Delight, in case my guests didn't feel like having homemade cold medicine, but these are good friends who share my enthusiasms--they were game to try them all.) We served with glasses of port, since the Tabula did advise that electuaries should be taken with wine.
I had the lowest expectations for the electuaries made from horehound--it's an incredibly bitter herb, and even in small quantities, it still had a sharp aftertaste. (The horehound and licorice combination was a bit better, but it was still not great.) The hyssop was less bitter, but it tasted more medicinal. Adding the hyssop herb to the candy mixture wasn't my most inspired moment either: "Like eating freshly mowed lawn", one of my dinner guests observed. I had plenty of these left at the end of the evening.
On the other hand, the licorice and white poppy seed combination was a crowd pleaser--at the last moment, I'd rolled the electuaries in white poppy seeds, which created a pleasantly bready flavor, almost like halvah. There was a slight scuffle over who would get to eat the last one. And the greatest success of all was the rosewater and rosehip powder electuary--sweet, tangy, and an excellent source of Vitamin C.
That last observation is about the extent of what I can say with certainty about the medical value of the electuaries I made--rosehips have a lot of Vitamin C. No one had a cold at the table, so it wasn't ideal test conditions. But we all agreed that the two most agreeable varieties of electuaries would be a nice thing to have around when the next virus strikes. So I've got my licorice, white poppy seeds, and rosehips at the ready. At the first sign of a sniffle among friends and family, it will be electuary time.